It was on Loyalist Day — May 18, 2023 — at the courthouse in “the loyalist city” of Saint John when a jury announced that the death of Skyler Sappier under the custody of the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre was due to natural causes.
As soon as the verdict was read out, Dora Sappier — Skyler’s mother — stood up and walked out indignantly while the entire courtroom turned awkwardly silent.
The jury member reading the verdict did not pause long and continued with the recommendation. The verdict came after two days of testimony at a coroner’s inquest that examined evidence and heard from 23 witnesses surrounding Sappier’s death.
The 28-year-old Wolastoqewiyik man from Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation) died at the Saint John Regional Hospital, in the early morning hours of January 31, 2022, two days after two correctional officers dropped him off at the emergency department.
He had tested positive for COVID at the correctional centre just before being transported to the hospital.
ER nurse Rae Tremblay recorded his arrival at 5:37 p.m. on January 29, 2022 and found signs of a life-threatening infection (sepsis) and low oxygen, putting him on ”Level 2” triage, which means the patient should be seen by a doctor within 15 minutes. Level 1 triage is for the most severe cases such as when patients are not breathing.
Despite doctors’ efforts to save him, his condition deteriorated, which according to the testimony by pathologist Dr. Kenneth Obenson was most likely due to complications with lung problems and pneumonia.
His family found out about his critical condition less than five hours before he passed away.
“We got a message from a community member and he asked my mom to call the correctional centre and we were told he was transferred to the hospital and it didn’t look good,” explained Shawna Sanipass, one of Skyler’s sisters.
That night, she and Dora Sappier drove as fast as they could from Rexton to the Saint John Regional Hospital.
When they arrived at the hospital, his partner, Chelsey, and another sister who drove from Fredericton, Leah, were already there. He was in a coma, able to breathe only with the help of the last-resort ECMO machine.
“The last [time] any of our family had heard from him was in the form of a letter. He had [written to] my mom at the beginning of January, I believe, telling her he would be out soon,” explained Leah.
“Also none of us family heard from him that he was sick,” she said.
It was the community that revealed to the family what happened to him in jail.
“As soon as word got out that he had passed, we started receiving messages from people about how Skyler was treated in the correctional facility,” according to Shawna. “We were told that he had been banging on his cell door all night stating that he couldn’t breathe!”
Sappier had requested leave
Correctional officers that interacted with him testified that they had checked him regularly, giving him treatment according to the symptoms that he was showing at the time.
Understaffing and underfunding was mentioned by some of the witnesses from the correctional centre and the hospital, but negligence was not admitted.
When Staff Sergeant Stephan Pouliot, who has access to all the correctional centre’s security video and records, gave testimony through video conference, the Sappiers gave the prosecutor a note with a question to ask.
The presiding coroners had invited the family to write down any questions that they wanted prosecutors to ask witnesses. But this time, the prosecutor’s face appeared sour as he read it, whispering to the Sappiers that the question will most likely not be answered as expected.
But Dora Sappier was resolute that it must be asked.
The question pertained to reports that some inmates heard Skyler Sappier banging on his cell door, requesting help without any correctional officer responding.
Pouliot answered that he investigated it and came to a conclusion that it was unfounded since the records did not confirm it.No inmate was called to stand as a witness.
The superintendent at the Saint John Correctional Centre, Gerry Wright, admitted there was a COVID outbreak at the centre with about half of staff and inmates contracting the disease.
He also testified that he rejected Sappier’s request for temporary absence on January 12. Wright said he turned down the request because “public safety is more important.”
None of the correctional officers testified that Sappier posed any threat to the community.
Why was Sappier in jail?
“He was homeless in Fredericton and his charge was assault but he actually just spit on a security guard…That was when he was at the hospital, and he was getting help for his mental health,” Sierra, Skyler’s younger sister, told a journalist.
That episode became a breach of his probation following a history of trouble with the law.
“He’s been in and out of jail… petty crime basically,” Sierra said. ”I think one time he and his girlfriend were panhandling and he got charged for that.”
Sierra and her mom described Skyler’s love of animals, biking, fishing, and of spending time drinking coffee with his Meme (grandmother).
“He loved to just make people laugh,” Sierra recalled “In school he was the class’ clown, always wants to get a laugh out of somebody.”.
Things turned to a different direction after he got into drugs.
“We try and try and try to stop and get help… but he comes back (to drugs),” Dora said.
Family members spent “too many years not knowing him because of addiction and homelessness,” Sierra said. She felt that seeing him get out of jail, without drugs, “would’ve been a good start,” but he didn’t get that chance.
Not only that, but he was also denied a chance to get medical attention, because correctional staff “didn’t take him seriously,” she added.
A ‘proud father’ remembered
He was also remembered as a playful uncle and a proud father of a five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son. He loved to tell people about his children, even when he was very ill, which seemed to endear him to the hospital staff who testified.
“There was a shocking contrast between the compassionate, caring testimony provided by hospital staff and the level of ambivalence displayed by correctional staff in this incident,” said Tobique First Nation Chief Ross Perley, in a statement issued following the jury’s decision.
In February 2022, Chief Perley, representing Skyler’s family, had raised concerns about an unsanitary correctional facility and suspicion of negligence based on racism.
Acting chief coroner Michael Johnston subsequently announced that an inquest would be held. An inquest is a court proceeding that allows public presentation of all evidence relating to a questionable death.
As the inquest unfolded, the Sappiers felt like it was staged for nothing but to deny the reality of systemic racism which they face, along with other Indigenous families.
Jury rejects family’s recommendations
The 21 recommendations issued by a jury of four women and one man – all of them white – included very little feedback from the Sappiers.
Instead, the recommendations touched on procedural improvements, record keeping, logistics and staffing, without any reference to behavior or relationships between staff and inmates.
The jury did not include recommendations proposed by the Sappiers, such as culture training by Elders and blanket exercises to promote empathy towards Indigenous people among correctional officers.
“[The correctional officers] don’t care – that’s the best way I can put it,” said Martha Martin, a close friend of the Sappiers from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in B.C. who accompanied them throughout the proceeding.
“It’s a job, and where’s the care behind it? Because if there was any compassion in there, [Sappier] would have been brought to hospital when he started complaining about chest pain and not feeling well. How did you get to that point where… his lung was so inflamed?”
Martin’s daughter, Chantel Moore, was shot dead by a police officer in Edmundston in June 2020. Her other child, Michael Martin, committed suicide in custody at the Surrey Pretrial Centre in B.C. five months later.
“It’s one sided. Why are these other inmates not being brought in to talk about the full situation that was happening [at the Saint John jail],” Martin asked. “It’ll always continue to be one-sided until they start opening the full investigation completely and bringing every witness.”
For that reason, the Sappiers plan to file a civil lawsuit against the Saint John Correctional Centre.
“We believe the hospital did everything they could, but it’s the jail that we do mind, and the correctional officers,” Sierra said.
Skyler’s family set up a fundraising page to cover lawyers’ fees for the civil lawsuit. By late October it had raised $900 towards a $50,000 goal.
Other recommendation proposed by the Sappiers included increasing Indigenous representation in court and access to Indigenous people’s court; expanding restorative justice that complements and honours Indigenous teaching and law; involving Elders in trauma and addiction programs; having an Indigenous worker or liaison on each shift; adequate funding and planned programs for released inmates; and Indigenous-led second stage housing.
Meanwhile Chief Perley has called for an “Indigenous-led inquiry into the systemic racism that is on full display in today’s justice system.”
“We need immediate action before more people die,” Perley said.
Lawsuit a step towards healing, justice
The chief coroner, Michael Johnston, said at the beginning of each day that the inquest was not meant to assign blame, but to investigate the death of a member of “our own community” and to avoid death in similar circumstances in the future.
However, the families who lost their loved ones never felt a sense of belonging to that community, because realities such as systemic racism weren’t acknowledged.
Instead, those realities were effectively denied by a proceeding that was powerless to even mention, let alone solve, the real problem in the correctional institution.
Skyler Sappier family’s pursuit of justice through a civil lawsuit is a chance to expose the real issue: a cure for systemic racism and a step towards meaningful healing for the community.
Otherwise, the legacy of this inquest could be another lost opportunity, part of a cycle of colonial violence and injustice that continues to take victims; while so-called reconciliation remains symbolic and ceremonial, instead of substantial and meaningful.
Data Brainanta is a recent newcomer to Turtle Island from Indonesia who writes for the NB Media Co-op. He is the winner of the 2023 Brian Beaton Annual Prize in Journalism for Justice.